Steve Ben Israel, Longtime Member of Living Theatre, Dies

By Robert Simonson
20 Jun 2012

Steve Ben Israel, a regular participant in the unconventional productions of The Living Theatre who continued to exercise the troupe's artistic ethos even as the bohemian 1950s and '60s atmosphere that fostered and supported it fell away, died June 4 in Manhattan. He was 74.



Born in Brooklyn on May 25, 1938, he began his performing career in the late 1950s as a stand-up comedian and jazz drummer. He performed at famous venues such as the Commons, Bitter End , Café Wha and the Gaslight, and met famous figures like Dave Van Ronk, Lou Gossett Jr., Paul Stookey, Bob Dylan and Lenny Bruce.

As an actor, he took part in the landmark Theatre de Lys production of Threepenny Opera. Soon, he joined The Living Theatre, Judith Malina and Julian Beck's socially engaged, system-challenging theatre group.

He acted in the original 1963 staging of The Brig,  one of the group's most famous works, which depicted brutal conditions in a Marine Corps prison; and co-directed a revival in 2007 (which won an Obie Award). He was the monster in Frankenstein in 1968, and had a leading role in the 1968, semi-improvisational work Paradise Now, in which the cast, naked and often high on LSD, encouraged the audience members to overthrow the government.

When the work played Brazil in 1971, the cast was arrested on drug charges. Mr. Israel managed to escape to New York. There, he enlisted the help of famous artists to get the actors freed from jail. The experience resulted in another Living Theatre work, Seven Meditations on Political Sado-Masochism.

In recent years, Mr. Israel returned to stand-up comedy and solo work.

In 2010, he told The Villager that he inspired the title of Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent. Mr. Israel ate regularly at the Soho-based Moondance Diner, where Larson was a waiter. The two men would often talk. The composer mentioned he was having difficulty with the title of his new musical, to which Israel mentioned "some truism about rent issues that he had said on a radio show he was hosting."

Israel is survived by his wife Pamela, also a veteran of the Living Theatre, and their son, Baba Israel, a hip-hop artist.